Welcome to the fourth post in our series Voices from #BlackWomenInMedicine. To learn more about our mission to support Black women in medicine, we encourage you to read our first blog post in the series as well as part two and part three. Black female doctors represent only 2% of physicians.1 It is our hope that by sharing stories, perspectives and wisdom from this 2%, we will inspire change so that underrepresented minorities are presented with ample opportunities to follow in their footsteps of making medicine their career. We also hope this blog series brings an invigorated appreciation for Black female physicians who have made it their lives’ work to improve the health of others, regardless of race. #PathTwitter has a unique and strong presence on the web and we hope you will take the opportunity to share this blog post and amplify these voices while reflecting on how you can bring equality to medicine.
Dr. Evita B. Henderson-Jackson (@EHJPathDiva) is an Associate member of the Department of Anatomic Pathology (Sarcoma) at Moffitt Cancer Center (@MoffittNews), Associate professor of the Department of Pathology & Cell Biology and Department of Oncologic Sciences (Joint) at the University of South of Florida Morsani College of Medicine (USF MCOM), and Program Director of the AP/CP Pathology Residency Program (USF MCOM) in Tampa, Florida. We had the honor of asking Dr. Henderson-Jackson questions about experiences she’s had being a Black woman in medicine.
Q. When you made it known you were going to pursue medicine, did you face any discrimination or anyone trying to steer you in a different direction?
A. Around middle school years, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in medicine. Through my own personal library research and love of science, especially biology, I established that pathology would be the best “fit” for me. My family supported my career choice even though they believed I would be cutting up corpses for a living. I would be the first college graduate and first doctor in my family.
My grandmother told her doctors, Dr. Hewitt and Dr. Ratliff, about my plans along with boasting about my good grades, honor roll, and GPA. To my surprise, I was offered opportunities to shadow with them at their offices and hospital for several weeks. It was exciting and eye-opening. The experience confirmed my interest in medicine. Of note, my high school guidance counselor was of minimal help. I had my mother come to the high school to ensure that I received enrollment in my AP courses for college bound track and not the technical track imposed by the administration. Again, the library along with help from Drs. Hewitt and Ratliff I identified colleges and scholarships to apply for. I got accepted a few colleges, but I chose to go to the University of South Carolina Aiken with full scholarship from Coca-Cola.
I was on the pre-med track and most faculty and students on this track did not look like me. The professor of my organic chemistry class told me I would not make it. In fact, I passed organic chemistry, one of the top students, and graduated with my B.S. in Biology. There have been road blocks I believe due to my race and/or gender or both but I did not allow those challenges to steer me away from my goal of becoming a physician. My parents, aunt, cousins and friends were and continue to support me.
Q. Medical school is challenging enough as it is - what additional challenges were you presented with because you are a Black woman?
A. Medical school is challenging. I believe there were only about 7-8 black medical students in our class with over 120 students. I often felt alone because a majority of the time the black students were separated into different small groups and rarely crossed each other’s paths. I felt that I had to work ten times harder than my peers to ensure I had the correct answer when asked. Because if I got it wrong, it would not only mean I was not smart but I feared all blacks in that faculty member’s mind would then be looked at as “not smart”. As a student and currently as faculty, I deal with the subtle microaggressions: “you speak so clearly and articulately”; “you make black people proud”; “I’m sorry I thought you were housekeeping”, etc.
Q. In your career, as you achieved higher status, have you been met with different forms of discrimination?
A. In academic medicine as I progressed from an assistant rank to an associate rank, I have been involved in situations for which I believe the issue had to do with the color of my skin. I am the only black pathologist in my department. Having worked with my colleagues for several years believing that I had their respect and trust, I was deeply hurt and saddened when confronted with issues challenging my diagnostic skills that I believed were unproven, resulting in removal from a particular service without resolution of the problem and told to just leave it alone. I had a few good mentors and colleagues to confide in. After the tears and self-reflection, I moved on. However, from that point on I am very cautious around those I work with and believe in thorough documentation of everything I do to protect myself and my career. Surprisingly, I was later placed back on that service because of my experience and skills.
Q. Who are your mentors?
A. I thank God for bringing me together with my current mentors, Dr. Marilyn Bui (@DrBuiPathology) and Dr. Anne Champeaux (@ChampeauxMD). Dr. Bui helped me through residency and fellowship training, as well as guided me as a young faculty member assisting me in becoming a better clinician and educator. Dr. Champeaux’s leadership expertise has helped me in becoming a good program director. They are just not great mentors, but are good confidants and role models. They offer my name for opportunities that are advantageous to promotion and my career goals. I would like to someday be like them to be someone else to pay it forward.
Q. When and why did you choose to pursue medicine and pathology?
A. Earlier I described how I chose medicine as my career. Why pathology? I am intrigued with the mechanisms of disease. I loved learning about cells and how they form tissues creating systems in the body. Histology, with its visual construction of the tissues of our body, is exciting to see every day. The ability to be a detective to search and identify cancer is why I pursued the specialty of pathology, specifically oncologic pathology. My father died of pancreatic cancer. My grandmother died secondary to cardiovascular disease and COPD due to years of smoking. I sought to understand the pathology behind their diseases and work with other pathologists and clinicians to improve health for all and especially for underrepresented minorities.
Q. Pathology, and medicine in general, is not diverse. How can we change that?
A. There is no short term, quick fix to the underrepresentation of minority physicians in pathology, and medicine in general. It will take time to change systems and culture across the nation’s medical community. It is not impossible, but it will take on-going commitment for change. Medical schools, universities, organizations and societies must make diversity, equity and inclusion a priority and set action plans to achieve outcomes that show evidence of diversity, equity and inclusion. Mentorship is needed from level of student to faculty in order to recruit and retain a diverse medical workforce. Intentional recruitment should start young reaching out to diverse students in middle school and high school with interest in medicine. Training in cultural competency and implicit bias must be on-going, not a one-time webinar, to result in effective change. Engagement of everyone is required. These are just a few of the things, I believe, would help medicine become more diverse.
Q. Regarding discrimination you have faced, what words of wisdom do you want to tell Black women in medicine/pursuing medicine?
A. Discrimination has and will be a constant issue in our society. In my opinion, there are many forms and types of discrimination that must be dealt with on a social level as well as on a personal level. As a Black woman who has successfully completed college, medical school and residency to become a pathologist working at an outstanding cancer center and university in academic medicine, I would like to provide some guidance for others dealing with discrimination.
First, there is no workplace, public place, or any other environment working with people without issues of discrimination, bias, or microaggressions. It is systemic. Instead of allowing these issues to hinder your goals and well-being, focus on your strengths and seek support from family, friends and mentors to buffer the negativity and build resilience.
Secondly, connect with others and become involved with groups or organizations to be a part of culture change such as the local chapter of SNMA (Student National Medical Association) if you’re a student, faculty groups at your university if you’re a faculty member in order to communicate issues, or specialty societies which have several committees to include diversity, equity and inclusion to work toward change. It is important to have your voice heard.
Thirdly, take time to take care of yourself. It can be emotionally and physically tiring dealing with the many forms of discrimination. Exercise, meditate, or do whatever makes you happy and gives you peace.
We would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to Dr. Henderson-Jackson for talking with us. To other Black women in medicine, we’d like to share your story in our Voices from Black Women in Medicine series. Please email Kristin at firstname.lastname@example.org or message us on Twitter at @instapathbio. Stay tuned as we continue this series in the coming weeks.
Built on the vision of better patient outcomes, Instapath was founded in 2017 by engineers and scientists to enable patients to immediately know their cancer diagnosis. Our team made it our mission to develop fast and easy digital pathology technology so diagnosis can be made in minutes instead of days. To learn more about Instapath and our technology, visit www.instapathbio.com or contact us at email@example.com.